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Social services of general interest

In the EU, social services play a crucial role in improving quality of life and providing social protection. They include:

  • social security
  • employment and training services
  • social housing
  • child care 
  • long-term care
  • social assistance services

These services are a vital means of meeting basic EU objectives such as social, economic and territorial cohesion, high employment, social inclusion and economic growth. The EU encourages cooperation and the exchange of good practice between EU countries  to improve the quality of social services, and provides financial support for their development and modernisation (eg from the European Social Fund).

Community rules and social services – clarifying the situation

In modernising social services to better respond to changing needs, societal challenges (for example population ageing) and financing constraints, national authorities are increasingly diversifying the ways in which these services are organised, provided and financed (eg increased decentralisation, outsourcing of certain tasks to private – profit or non-profit – providers). Consequently, a growing proportion of these services now come under the scope of Community rules on competition and the internal market.

In this new environment, public authorities, service providers and users have asked for clarification of the legal framework. A broad consultation process carried out over the last few years has shown that most difficulties relate to a lack of awareness or misinterpretation of the rules rather than dissatisfaction with the rules themselves. To help address this and answer the needs of public authorities, service providers and users, the Commission has developed FAQs on the applicability of state aid and public procurement rules and an interactive information service.

Supporting the quality of social services

Interest is growing among public authorities, services providers, users and other stakeholders in the debate on the quality of social services. The Commission supports the development, (within the Social Protection Committee) of a voluntary EU quality framework providing guidelines on how to set, monitor and evaluate quality standards. This initiative is part of a strategy which includes financing (via the PROGRESS programme) of bottom-up, transnational projects to develop mechanisms for defining, measuring, assessing and improving the quality of social services.

Latest policy developments

The results of a consultation process to clarify the specificities of social services of general interest are contained in the 2007 Communication on services of general interest (including social and health services).

The Communication:

  • lists several specific aims for social services
  • explains how these aims are reflected in the ways the services are organised, delivered and financed
  • proposes a strategy to clarify the applicable legal framework

In November 2008, the Social Protection Committee adopted a report on the application of Community rules to social services of general interest, which assessed the strategy put in place by the Commission and made recommendations (see 'related documents' on this page).

The Commission published its first biennial report on social services of general interest in 2008, giving an overall picture of these services in the EU.

The report:

  • describes the socio-economic role of such services and the major economic and societal changes to which they have to adapt
  • looks at the way they adjust to evolving needs and constraints
  • considers how these changes affect the organisation, financing and provision of social services of general interest in terms of relevant Community rules.

It is based on a 2008 study on social services of general interest.  

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